As visitors to Ukraine know, the country’s automobile drivers are a menace to society. They drive too fast and too carelessly, they drink and drive and then drink some more, and they think they own the roads. That they rarely wear seatbelts goes without saying.
They’re also a menace to themselves. President Yanukovych’s close adviser Hanna Herman lost a son in a tragic car accident in 2009.
Take a walk in downtown Kyiv and you’re likely to find that there are as many cars on the sidewalks as there are people. All of them are going somewhere, but whereas most people are polite enough to let you pass, most drivers feel that it’s you who are imposing on them. A friend of mine once tried to sidestep an automobile that was bearing down on him on the sidewalk. He instinctively raised his arm and smacked the front windshield. It broke. The driver raised hell. My friend pleaded self-defense. So whom did the police arrest? My friend, of course. He got off only because he had a Canadian passport.
Naturally, drivers take to Kyiv’s sidewalks because many of them are exceptionally wide and because there’s insufficient room for parking. I once read that the capital city’s cars, if lined up front to back, would exceed the length of its streets. So what’s a driver to do? The president’s solution to this problem is to commute to work by helicopter. That takes chutzpah in a poor and transportationally challenged country like Ukraine, but chutzpah is what Ukrainian fat cats do best.
And chutzpah is the real reason that cars own the sidewalks. How many of you would ever even consider parking in the middle of a sidewalk? It’s just not done. And, besides, you’d get a ticket. Whoever started this trend in Kyiv felt that the normal rules of civilized urban behavior didn’t apply to him and that there was nothing to fear from the cops—presumably because they were on the take or feared him.
That chutzpah is also evident in the way these guys drive—which is always too fast. Small wonder that accidents and fatalities abound, not just on highways and ill-lit country roads, but in cities. As a New Yorker, I know for a fact that New York drivers take great pride in running red lights, ignoring traffic rules, and making a nuisance of themselves. But the accidents they cause are rarely fatal, because they generally drive within the speed limit.
On February 20th, in Kyiv, six cars got involved in a big accident, and one driver suffered serious injuries. The day after, three cars got banged up in Kharkiv and two people died. If you follow the news in Ukraine, you know these sorts of incidents are pretty much a daily occurrence in the country’s cities.
You also know that the cars involved in urban crashes are almost always expensive foreign models. The ones in Kyiv were a Mercedes-Benz Е 320, a Mitsubishi Lancer, a Hyundai Sonata, a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Hyundai ix35, and a Volvo S80. The ones in Kharkiv were a Mazda, a Mercedes, and a Kia.
The owners are generally Ukraine’s nouveaux riches, which, by definition, means that a good number of them are policymakers or the offspring of policymakers. Unsurprisingly, like the fellow who almost ran down my friend, they appear to go scot-free after causing accidents.
So why shouldn’t these guys revel in their chutzpah? They own the country and they run the country. Why can’t they run it down, too?
If the Regionnaire fat cats had any sense, they’d walk to work. They’d lose a little weight, rub shoulders with the great unwashed masses they claim to love, and perhaps be in the position to win the October parliamentary elections fair and square. That’ll never happen, of course, because Ukraine’s elites need big cars to compensate for the smallness of their egos. If you know you’re a small-time crook pretending to be a big-time player, you positively need that Armani suit and Rolex and Mercedes.
Expect the fat cats’ first big encounter with reality to take place during the June UEFA football games. I’d like to see one of them bear down on some strolling British soccer fans. Windshields aren’t the only things that are likely to get smashed.
The Regionnaires’ next big encounter with reality will come after the parliamentary elections. They’ll ignore speed limits and traffic regulations, but when they finally hit a wall, the crash will be deafening. And that tinkling noise will be the sound of their brittle chutzpah shattering.
Photo Credit: Pieter Lanser